All roads lead to a bathtub in “Thermae Romae,” a time-travel fantasy in which a Roman architect from 128 AD saves the empire by tapping into Nipponese ablution habits. The manga adaptation has fun with anachronisms the way “The Flintstones” and “Asterix” do, but helmer Hideki Takeuchi gets mileage out of East-West clashes via a subject that’s universal, yet culturally specific. Sketched in broad, TV-influenced comic strokes, the pic is cheekily entertaining but could do without its sudsy romantic strand. Sturdy local B.O., upbeat Italian engagements and good Asian sales prove this is more than a curio.
In a Rome that’s under the reign of Emperor Hadrian (Masachika Ichimura), Lucius Modestus (Hiroshi Abe, “Trick,” “Still Walking”), a recently unemployed architect, is sucked into an underwater conduit while having a soak at the public spa. He resurfaces in a tub in a “sento” (neighborhood bathhouse) in contempo Japan. Disdain for the “flat-faced slaves” who cluster around him soon turns to wonder when he sets eyes on novel inventions like hair dryers, laundry baskets and fruit-flavored milk. While stumbling around naked, he crashes into Mami Yamakoshi (Aya Ueto) a fledgling manga illustrator who is enchanted by his classical features and statuesque torso.
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As inexplicably as he disappeared, Lucius suddenly finds himself back in Rome, and soon applies what he has learned, becoming an innovator in bathhouse design, and winning the trust of Hadrian and his counsellor Antonius (Kai Shishido). Further time traveling presents ideas from a standard Japanese bathroom, a posh showroom for washlets, and a rural hot spring inn.
The pic is adapted from the first two volumes of Mari Yamazaki’s manga of the same title (meaning “Roman Bath”), which sold more than 5 million copies. While remaining faithful to the yarn, Takeuchi strips it of the author’s geekily academic overtone, and tweaks the order of events to forge a less cumbersome and episodic structure. The only significant deviation is the creation of Mami whose chance encounters with Lucius stretch credibility even for a fantasy, and her schoolgirl crush barely counts as romance.
The original’s wry humor is exaggerated to a crackling slapstick style that goes down well via droll anachronism, such as Lucius mistaking toilet paper as papyrus, and believing that jacuzzis are powered by furnace-blowing slaves; and also through cultural in-jokes, like Lucius’ discovery of “onsen tamago” (eggs boiled in a hot spring), and the irony that the “sento” with its quaint ’70s decor and geriatric clientele, is anything but a hi-tech hub. Thankfully, these never devolve into vulgar pastiche like “Meet the Spartans,” as the predominantly Japanese cast plays its Roman identities straight, for the most part. Abe and Ichimura acquit themselves well with dignified perfs, but Kazuo Kitamura spoils the role of Hadrian’s rakish successor Ceionus with hammy Western mannerisms.
The final act betrays a misjudged ambition that aims to achieve some kind of epic grandeur by embroiling the protags in political intrigue and even war. As it harps on how Japanese virtues like teamwork and altruism save the day, the cultural perspective becomes humorlessly self-congratulatory, while the manga’s intended ode to humans bonding as equals in their nakedness (called “hataka no tsukiai” in Japanese) gets lost. Considering postwar Japan emerged as an economic powerhouse by copying and perfecting Western technology, a revisionist fantasy about the cradle of Western civilization borrowing from Japanese traditions is fascinating wish-fulfillment.
The uneven tech package looks best in the Rome-set scenes. Shooting them in Cinecitta studio and employing more than 2,000 Italian extras, Kazunari Kawagoe’s Red One lensing lays out a sumptuously colored and textured widescreen canvas that’s a qualified homage to Cecil B. De Mille. Verdi and Puccini arias sung by a comical Placido Domingo lookalike roar through the film.